Creative Uses for Law Reports

A recent article on Lorraine Neidecker’s correspondence with Louis Zukofsky sent me back to The Objectivist Anthology, and one of the most curious uses ever made of the West Reporter SeriesFor younger members of Slaw and those reliant on most Canadian law libraries these were a vast set of legal cases from the United States that provided the wall coverings for many a lawyer’s office and led to the extraordinary legal publishing empire of the West Publishing Company..
Corpus Juris

The poet Charles Reznikoff spent part of his career as a contributor to the Corpus Juris and became fascinated with browsing through the law reports looking for cases involving “injury (death, assault, theft) due to primitive violence; injury due to negligence, particularly those caused by machinery . . . , and unusual characters or places–unusual and yet characteristic of the time.”

From these he mined his extraordinary collection of found poems, TestimonyCharles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, published in two volumes by Black Sparrow in 1978, is 530 pages of short poem-sections extracted from court-room witness statements. It is thirty years from 450 perspectives, or at 450 different points run into lines. Reznikoff read through hundreds of volumes of law reports from the National Reporters System (a published record of all cases which reach the appellate level, developed by West Publishing in the nineteenth century) to find the material. Then he rearranged it and presented it in a free verse combining long and short lines. The poems are organised by region and by category, imitating West Publishing Company’s digest topics.
. He later explained the process:

A few years ago . . . I was working for a publisher of law books, reading cases from every state and every year (since this country became a nation). Once in a while I could see in the facts of a case details of the time and place, and it seemed to me that out of such material the century and a half during which the U.S. has been a nation could be written up, not from the standpoint of an individual, as in diaries, nor merely from the angle of the unusual, as in newspapers, but from every standpoint–as many standpoints as were provided by the witnesses themselves.

From a poem by Reznikoff:

The law that we studied
was not always the actual law
of judges or statutes
but an ideal
from which new branches were ever springing
as society became complicated
and the new rights of its individuals clear.

Reznikoff delights in the stuff of legal research:

the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.
… I found it delightful
to bathe in the clear waters of reason,
to use words for their daylight meaning
and not as prisms
playing with the rainbows of connotations …
… I felt no regret for the glittering words I had played with
and only pleasure to be working with ideas—
of rights and wrongs and their elements,
and of justice between men in their intricate affairs.

The lives he found in the law reports were full of raw emotion and violence. Here is an example:

“It’s a lie!” she cried. He struck her in the face with his newspaper, and
then with his straw hat;
and she struck back with a fish she had just bought
and then with the pocketbook she still held in her hand.
The steel clasp scratched his face and it began to bleed.
As she left the store,
he shouted after her that she should not come back
and his house was closed to her forever!
He went upstairs to the rooms where they lived
and gathered up all her clothing he could find
and cut and slashed it with knife and scissors.

Here is a picture of Reznikoff reading poetry on a Brooklyn bus:


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